Clayton-Richmond Heights Merger Talks Dead
Clayton and Richmond Heights (two St. Louis County municipalities, for those of you who read us from Kansas City or Lithuania) have seen their merger discussions go down to defeat by a vote of 20-5 at the final meeting of their Joint Study Committee. Both the West End Word and the Post-Dispatch have the details. The death of the discussions was long predicted, as indicated by the fact that only 25 of the 40 members of the JSC even showed up for the final vote. I wrote an op-ed supporting the merger earlier this year, but am not at all surprised by its defeat.
The proposal essentially failed because the committee was unable to come up with any hard evidence that merging the cities would lead to tax and cost savings. Why were they unable to come up with this seemingly easy evidence of economies of scale? I have a friend who served on one of the subcommittees. He or she supported the idea of a merger. However, every subcommittee had a representative from both Clayton and Richmond Heights government on it. For example, the Parks subcommittee had both cities’ parks directors, and so on.
Not surprisingly, as the two government employees had more information and knowledge then the other volunteers, their opinions carried a great deal of weight. Even less surprisingly, the two gov. reps were not at all interested in promoting any cuts to their departments, in any way. Amazingly, both cities run at a level of efficiency that would make Henry Ford proud, at least according to what the city employees on my friend’s subcommittee told them at their meetings. Seriously, both city reps stressed that their departments were running at 100% efficiency and that there were absolutely no economies of scale or cuts that could come out of a merger.
Well, of course, this is absurd, but the volunteer members of any committee don’t stand a chance arguing against full-time government employees. So it seems that the mayors of both cities and the city managers, all four of whom supported the idea of a merger (at least I think they all did; I am open to corrections), were cut off at their knees by other city employees "helping" out on the subcommittees.
The other problems with the discussions were the promise not to fire any employees (which still, apparently, did not satisfy the civil servants) and the "Harmonization of services," which guaranteed that in cases of different service levels, the combined city would always adopt the higher level of service. I am certain that the average resident of both cities would not have insisted on this "harmonization," although the ones who showed up to shout at the public meetings might have.
Let’s be really honest here. Clayton and Richmond Heights would benefit from a merger, but there are probably 70 cities in the county that need to do something like this more than they do. Both are very well-run cities in strong financial positions. Both have comparatively low taxes and great city services. That being said, the merger still would be beneficial for the cities by making the tax base more varied, which would have resulted in lower taxes for residents mostly by eliminating redundant government jobs.
I know that the JSC tried to hire an outside expert back in 2005, but that effort failed. Looking back, when the Brookings Institution declined to do the study, it probably doomed the entire effort, as it forced officials to rely on city employees for expertise, with all the attendant turf-protection.
Even without a merger, the final report still recommends continuing efforts to work together and share services when possible. That is a very good thing and will greatly benefit residents of both cities.